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Brandon Lingle: Queen’s Creek

August 30, 2012

Back from Iraq, a veteran meditates on the past, present, and future of American warfare, and the small creek in Virginia where they all flow together.

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Image courtesy of Brandon Lingle

By Brandon Lingle

Midway into a late-night run, I veer down the narrow trail to my neighborhood’s dock. It is November 2011, and I’ve been home from Iraq for barely a week. The oyster-shell path glows under porch light shards as it curves away from the homes and plunges into a swath of forest. I navigate the wooden stairs that zigzag down the hillside. At the bottom, a pier spans a hundred yards over marshland into the main channel of Queen’s Creek.

Surrounded by bases from every service, the stream runs through the epicenter of America’s military might, past and present—a nexus of American violence. Just a few miles from the ruins of Jamestown and the monument marking Washington and Rochambeau’s victory at Yorktown, this ribbon of brackish water reinforced key defensive lines for colonists, revolutionaries, rebels, and spies. The creek anchored a palisade shielding English colonists from the Powhatans. During the Civil War, Magruder and Longstreet used it to bolster Confederate lines against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

I feel the same adrenaline-tinged heartbeat that I felt after the explosions in Baghdad. People aren’t disintegrating at Camp Peary, but the blasts share the same ominous aftermath as many war-zone booms—silence.

The mouth of this York River tributary forms the western edge of land DuPont used as a dynamite plant during the Great War. Workers lived in a company town named after Russell Penniman, the creator of ammonia-based dynamite. A government report says the factory produced 54,000 shells daily, and thousands of tons of explosives were unaccounted for when the plant closed shortly after World War I. The site became the Navy’s Cheatham Annex during World War II. Today, the base remains a Navy storage facility and recreation area, and is an E.P.A. Superfund site thanks to decades of toxic and medical waste dumping. Just beyond Cheatham lies Yorktown Naval Weapons Center, current home to most of the Navy’s explosives.

Queen’s Creek also serves as the eastern boundary of a government training site called Camp Peary, which was carved from land annexed in 1942 that included the towns of Magruder and Bigler’s Mill. Originally a Navy base, where 150,000 Seabees trained for World War II duty, today the site is officially titled the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity, but most call it The Farm. The consensus is that the CIA uses the base to train recruits. I see bearded Camp Peary guys during my 7 a.m. gas station coffee stop—lots of Velcro and pockets, tattoos, and grey t-shirts with a crossbow logo on the chest. Blacked-out choppers buzz my house every few weeks, and I wonder if geared-up operators hang in the open doors, eyeballing my neighborhood through the green and black of night vision goggles. Sometimes, when I barbeque or toss the ball to my kids, I hear machine gun fire from across the creek. Every couple of months, around 3 a.m., Camp Peary explosions pummel my home. Shockwaves rattle walls, picture frames, and my children’s nerves. The bombs jolt me awake, and I feel the same adrenaline-tinged heartbeat that I felt after the explosions in Baghdad. People aren’t disintegrating at Camp Peary, but the blasts share the same ominous aftermath as many war-zone booms—silence. Most times you never know the explosions’ cause or consequence.

Across the water from Camp Peary’s black ops and barbed wire, the creek flows into a bastion of recreation. Docks, clubhouses, pools, and mansions now guard the sloping banks. At New Quarter Park the trails ease past the remnants of Confederate earthworks. Sometimes I hear of nearby residents digging up cannonballs, musket rounds, or arrowheads in their vegetable gardens.

Camp Peary’s choppers are silent this night, but my footsteps rattle the dock’s faded planks above the drone of vehicles blasting across the I-64 bridge, slung low across the creek two hundred yards downstream. The dock’s two-by-fours reflect a bony light under the blood moon. I hear a splash in the slough off to my right, and I keep my pace despite a tweak in my chest. The tidal stream resembles crude, flowing thick, slow, and silent toward the York, Chesapeake, and the Atlantic beyond. As I near the end of the dock I spot a person silhouetted against the dim sky. Five meters out I apologize for disturbing his peace.

He says, “No worries.”

I begin to think that it’s a good thing his unit wasn’t pummeling neighboring Iraqis, and then I’m ambushed by the reality: it’s much easier to think that way when you’re safe at home on a brisk autumn night.

He leans into the rail flanking a line of empty beer bottles. He pinches a wad of tobacco into his lower lip. I breathe a whiff of minty leaves and crave a chew, but remember that I quit when I left Iraq. I’m still breathing hard and sweating as we navigate through intros and the weather. I learn his name is Will and that he’s on leave, en route from a Fort Sill artillery job to Special Forces School at Fort Bragg. I mention I’m on leave too. Two weeks off before getting back to work at Langley Air Force Base. In the darkness, I discern the outline of his parted hair and collared shirt. The hazy sky, commingled with swamp stench and car exhaust, yanks my mind back to Baghdad. On a certain level I savor the smell of the primordial mud riding the November breeze as our discussion slides toward Mesopotamia. He completed his second Iraq tour a few weeks before I returned from my first, during the death throes of the nine-year odyssey.

“This tour was a joke compared to the first,” he says. “Last time we could shoot back.”

I nod in the dark.

In the past, American forces would fire back on the spots where insurgents launched rockets or mortars toward our bases. More often than not, the bad guys didn’t stick around to watch. Cobbled launchers of scrap iron, batteries, and washing machine timers lobbed their weapons automatically. The U.S. barrage that followed could sometimes kill innocents and destroy their neighborhoods. As Operation Iraqi Freedom shifted toward New Dawn, and Americans left Iraqi cities, the policy shifted too, and we stopped shooting back.

“It doesn’t add up,” he says. “What good is an artillery unit that can’t fire back?”

I begin to think that it’s a good thing his unit wasn’t pummeling neighboring Iraqis, and then I’m ambushed by the reality: it’s much easier to think that way when you’re safe at home on a brisk autumn night.

“Makes about as much sense as carrying unloaded weapons in a warzone,” I say. “Some soldiers didn’t even have their own ammo. The bosses were more afraid of our own guys. Accidental discharge.”

“Or, how about bases not having overhead cover?”

“The Iraqis I worked with could barely fix a flat on their Humvee,” he says. “I’m not sure what we achieved in the last year.”

Overhead cover—expensive armor usually built over soldiers’ quarters and dining facilities—can help minimize the damage from insurgent rockets and mortars. Even after years of conflict, most military Forward Operating Bases in Iraq had very little overhead cover, but virtually all State Department people lived in up-armored facilities. Leaders explained that Department of Defense bases in Iraq would close at the end of the year and State Department sites would remain open, justifying the expense, but for the military people on the ground, this translates roughly into: “You are expendable.”

Fifteen service members died in June ’11, the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq since the height of the surge in ’08. The worst attack came when a Shiite militia attacked a Baghdad FOB with improvised rockets. It’s tough to say whether or not overhead cover might have helped save the six soldiers roused from their bunks as their world closed in just before dawn that June 6th.

“We pay millions to build up the Iraqi military, but aren’t willing to spend the extra cash to protect our troops?”

“The Iraqis I worked with could barely fix a flat on their Humvee,” he says. “I’m not sure what we achieved in the last year.”

The prospect of endless days of mental, physical, and emotional trials excites him. He hopes to eventually deploy to Afghanistan, or maybe Iraq again.

“We talked, drank tea, and got lots of people hurt and killed.” Some worked to keep the war going, riding around the country on helicopters and selling weapons to Iraqis.

“Can we keep 50,000 troops in Iraq, please? 25,000? 10,000? 5,000? How about 150?.” A pause. “I killed a sixteen-year-old boy,” he says. “Our battalion’s only kill this deployment.”

I stare at his shadow on the dock, and I feel a stab of fall air through my damp t-shirt.

“Outside Kirkuk. Got pinned down by someone taking pot shots,” he says. “We figured out where the shooter was, and the lieutenant colonel froze. He was nearly crying. Lying on the ground. Ordered me to take the shooter out. So, I did. Just a barefoot kid with a rusty AK. He fell in a drainage ditch. I remember the muddy water flowing over his feet.”

Like the vast majority of service members, I’ve never fired a weapon in combat let alone killed anyone. I think about how I’d have reacted.

“Damn dude,” I say. “I’m not sure what to say.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “Maybe I accomplished something while I was over there.”

We talk for more than an hour. I learn that his dad is a Vietnam vet who teaches combat skills at Camp Peary. In addition to extreme daily workouts, Will plans to run land navigation courses through the local woods during his week of leave, in preparation for the years of special operations training to come. The prospect of endless days of mental, physical, and emotional trials excites him.

He hopes to eventually deploy to Afghanistan, or maybe Iraq again. While most American forces are set to leave in December 2011, a military presence providing security cooperation as part of ongoing State Department efforts will continue in Iraq for years.

“I’ll handle whatever they throw at me,” he says. “I’m up to the challenge.”

With that, he lobs his empty beer bottle in a mortar arc toward the water. The glass catches hints of moonlight before shattering the creek’s surface in a watery blast. Concentric ripples run silently from the epicenter out into the darkness, just as military forces and government operatives flow out and into the world from this place that I call home. And, just as tide runs in to fill the creek, so too do the unending consequences of our military odysseys.

I wish him luck, shake his hand, and turn away. As I walk toward shore, my mind drifts back before my deployment, to when my family and I watched summer sunsets, walking the dock. When we first arrived in tidewater Virginia we complained to each other about the sewer smell permeating our neighborhood. Eventually I realized this was normal for our intertidal stream, the natural byproduct of growth and decay churning in the water and the mud. I’d point out raccoon tracks lining the mire or snapping turtles holding fast in small water pockets. At the end of the dock we tossed lines with hooked minnows we’d scooped from their schools in a mesh bucket trap. We’d hope to catch croaker but usually pulled blue crabs.

Time after time I’d hoist the crabs onto the deck and my seven-year-old twin boys would taunt the crustaceans with sticks. The creatures always retreated with their claws up, like miniature boxers blocking incoming blows, or shielding their eyes from the sun. My boys jumped and laughed until the crabs found their way to the edge and fell sprawling backward, back into their brown water murk.

Brandon Lingle served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His nonfiction has appeared in various publications including The New York Times, The North American Review, War, Literature, & the Arts, Narrative, The Evergreen Review, and The Mississippi Review. His essay, “A Fair Fight in a Neutral Location,” was noted in The Best American Essays 2010, and he is an editor of War, Literature, and the Arts. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, Department of Defense or U.S. Government.

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2 comments for Brandon Lingle: Queen’s Creek

  1. Comment by Jesse on August 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Beautiful work by an amazing Airman-artist. Lingle’s writings and photographs are some of our nation’s finest concerning the challenging intersection of humanity and conflict. His latest work in the NY Times are great companion pieces to this moving account.

  2. Comment by Brandon on September 25, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    This essay is a notable in the Best American Essays 2013. Congrats to Guernica!

    http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/hmh/bestamerican/essaysbookdetails

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